poetry and politics

CitizenFrank Guan at The Point:

If poetry has a distinct class character, it also has a pronounced racial bent. Just as the American middle class is disproportionately white compared to the general population, an overwhelming majority of American poets are white. The parallel with high art and high fashion, those other tertiary fields, is instructive: in each field the criteria by which quality is assessed is so subjective, and the costs of entry for members of marginalized social groups so high—university certification, unpaid internships, the extra time required to master shibboleths and mores one’s white peers have been well versed in since childhood—that the demographics of the field, historically dominated by a white supermajority, remain as they are. Of all American literary genres, poetry has always been, by a wide margin, the most segregated. Though they appear together in anthologies, the fact is that white poets and black poets belong to two completely distinct traditions whose mutual relation, at best, has been nothing more than glancing.

The canon of white American poetry, with its extremely strong inclination toward still life and landscape and its implicit upper-middle-class presumption that solitude, not company, is the primary and most immediate (though not necessarily most desired) state of being, is predicated on white social hegemony: for most of American history only whites had free access to the countryside and the stability and autonomy required to be at ease there. Contrarily, the canon of black American poetry, with its invariable ground notes of defiance and urgency and its acute social awareness, constitutes a Sisyphean effort to assert the collective humanity of black Americans.

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